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'Oregon's sculptor' Lee Kelly installs piece in Fox Tower lobby

COURTESY PHOTO - Artist and gallery owner Elizabeth Leach (left) introduces Lee Kelly (center) last week at the public unveiling of his latest sculpture to be installed in Portland, 'Akbar's Elephant,' a 15-foot piece weighing 2,000 tons. Vanessa Sturgeon, president and CEO of TMT Development, looks on.If you walk into the lobby of the Fox Tower these days, the first thing you'll notice is the giant elephant in the room.

But it's not cause for awkwardness. It's cause for celebration.

Crews last week unveiled one of the largest public art installations in Oregon at Fox Tower, 805 S.W. Broadway: The 15-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide, 2,000-pound stainless steel sculpture "Akbar's Elephant."

"For years, we've been searching for the right art piece for the Fox Tower's expansive lobby — something local, that makes a big statement, with big personality," says Vanessa Sturgeon, president and chief executive officer of TMT Development, which manages the building.

After visiting the artist's studio in Oregon City, she knew it was the right fit, she says.

The sculptor is none other than internationally known octogenarian Lee Kelly, known as "Oregon's sculptor," who has created large-scale pieces all over the West Coast during the past 50 years.

His pieces are both distinctive and undefined; they carry his minimalist style while blending seamlessly into their landscape, at the Portland Art Museum; the International Rose Test Garden; Tom McCall Waterfront Park; the Oregon Garden; and corporate parks, hospitals and college campuses across the Pacific Northwest and overseas.

Portland artist and gallery owner Elizabeth Leach, who represents Kelly, calls him one of the most "significant artists of our region in the last 100 years."

"'Akbar's Elephant' marks a turning point in Lee Kelly's career," Leach says. "While he has always been an essentially abstract artist, this sculpture unmistakably makes reference to a historical narrative. The whimsical play of the piece is a dynamic counterpoint to the architecture of the Fox Tower."

It was no small feat transporting the sculpture from Kelly's studio to the Fox Tower. It traveled on a flatbed truck in three parts, with a boom truck, forklift, two gantry cranes, onsite welding and a team of more than eight people to complete the installation.

For the pachyderm, Kelly took his cue for "Akbar" from his love of travel, and history.

It's named after Akbar The Great (1542-1605), who united most of the Indian subcontinent through mostly political means, especially marriages, using as many as 90 elephants to transport his family.

"'Akbar's Elephant' is a playful take on the procession of elephants and people from Agra to Delhi," Kelly says. "I hope, in its new home, 'Akbar's Elephant' may inspire a golden age of cultural achievement in Portland, much as Akbar The Great did centuries ago in India."

Born in 1932 on a ranch in Idaho, Kelly has led a storied life,

Kelly has had a long relationship with the Portland Art Museum, having studied in the 1950s at the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) when it was still a part of the Portland Art Association (then called the Oregon Art Institute).

In the late 1950s, his work was regularly curated into the museum's regional exhibitions, and he had his first solo exhibition at the museum in 1960.

In 1963, Kelly opened his studio in Oregon City, where he lives and works today, in addition to being an avid outdoorsman.

In 1977, he won TriMet's national competition for public art with his hulking "Untitled Sculpture," which came to land at Southwest Sixth Avenue and Pine Street. The piece was chosen because it "impressed us with its promise to stand up in an urban environment," juror Rachel Griffin notes in TriMet's Green Line Public Art Guide.

In 1979 Kelly was appointed as an artist member of the Portland Art Association's Board of Trustees and Collections/Exhibition Committee.

During the past two decades, Kelly has traveled to sites of monuments and temples in Mexico, Nepal, India, Burma, Chile, Patagonia, Japan, New Zealand, Cambodia, Thailand and elsewhere.

In 2010, the Portland Art Museum mounted a major retrospective of his artwork, accompanied by a monograph.

According to the Oregon Arts Commission, Kelly makes all of his work by cutting pieces of steel that he welds together in hollow volumes. He's come to consider his pieces as "containers for ideas," and always offers viewers "a way in."

@jenmomanderson

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